Louis E.V. Nevaer & Elaine Sendyk
Protest Graffiti Mexico: Oaxaca
Mark Batty Publishers, 2009
As far as I know, this is the first book out that exclusively focuses on the political street art produced during the uprising in Oaxaca in 2006. Normally one might ask why we should embrace a book on the graffiti of a political rebellion when we barely have any books that deal with the actions of the period or the politics behind them. But as our world becomes more and more media saturated, how people that reject the status quo represent themselves publicly becomes increasingly important. If most people in the US saw anything about the Oaxaca rebellion, it was likely photos of the graffiti it produced on yahoo news. The popular and mass occupation of Oaxaca City lasted longer than the Paris Commune, and all we got were a couple lousy internet slideshows?!?
Thankfully Nevaer and Sendyk give us a much more in-depth look at the streets of Oaxaca than any web news outlet. Sendyk took the bulk of the photos included (over 150), and Nevaer narrates our trip through the images. Unlike most graffiti books coming out these days, this one actually attempts to provide context for the images included. The book begins with a reprinting of an Open Letter in Support of the People of Oaxaca, signed by an international collection of Left public intellectuals, and leads right into a chronology of events in Oaxaca. Nevaer tries to give us the information we need to understand the images, including a history of the PRI Party in Mexico, context for teachers strikes in Oaxaca, background on the Mexican Revolution, as well as the development of the strike in 2006, the formation of the Asamblea Popular de los Pueblos de Oaxaca (APPO), and the role of women in the struggle. The information provided is generally solid, if a little to liberal and repetitive for my taste.
What unfortunately is missing is background on the art itself. There is no history of the forms used (block prints which owe a huge debt to the Taller Gráfica de Popular, stencils that are a product of the last 5 years of international online image and info swapping by street artists), and we are told little about the artists themselves. Ana Santos is trumpeted as one of the most important artists to develop out of the struggle, the original female stencil artist, but we only get one paragraph about her. Likewise for the collective Arte Jaguar, whose images are compelling but we learn almost nothing about them or their motivations, other than that they seem to draw equal inspiration from the Zapatistas and Banksy. More troubling is the very limited description of ASARO (Asamblea de Artistas, Revolucionaros de Oaxaca). ASARO has been heralded, celebrated, dismissed and railed against by all different factions in the struggle and support networks. Their bold and powerful blockprints (which are oddly missing, for the most part, from this book) have become symbolic representations of the uprising, with international exhibitions being mounted and print sales supposedly going to support the struggle. At the same time some ASARO members affiliations with various sectarian political parties and their behavior as the police suppressed the revolt have caused splits in the movement, with public distancing from some sectors of APPO. When artists are representing a movement, it becomes important to know who they are and what ends they are working towards.
Unfortunately this book gives us little background on the artists themselves, we only get very select quotes from them, and no extended look at their real role in the Oaxacan movement. This is the book’s weakest point, and in-depth interviews with some of the artists could have pushed it from being a really good survey and collection to a great book. I would have liked to have seen a more inside view. To give an example, the image on the cover is by Colombian street art collective Excusado, in town for an exhibition, not to participate in the rebellion. Excusado is not the only non-Oaxacan art we see, the book also captures pieces by Swoon, Seth Tobocman, Bansky and Clifford Harper. The problem is not that these images are included, or that they did not also influence the visual landscape, but that none of the them are attributed in the book, and we are given no context or understanding of why they would show up in Oaxaca at this time. Images by popular street artists are being pulled down from the internet and reproduced in the heat of a full scale rebellion, this seems quite remarkable to me! People call the Zapatista uprising of 1994 the first post-modern revolution, but Oaxaca might be the first post-modern street art rebellion. All of the tools used by art rebels throughout history are mixed and matched in Oaxaca. We see classic relief printing, silkscreened posters, photocopy art, simple street stencils a la the Nicaraguan Revolution of 1979, more high-tech and accomplished stencils created with Photoshop and Illustrator, international images beamed across the internet, flyers using mock-popular culture references, and newspaper editorial cartoons painted directly on the wall. You don’t get much more of an interesting brew of street images than this!
That said, the pictures are the heart of the book, and they rescue it. A really sweeping and broad collection images, Protest Graffiti Mexico not only captures the spray painted scrawl and stencils, but a full range of public expression. Their are almost two dozen images of protest banners, as well as flyers, posters, and hand-painted characters. We really get a feeling of what the streets looked like at the time, with every wall covered with multiple layers of messaging, stencils having to share space with wheat pastes and scrawled cartoons. The diversity of images of hated Oaxaca Governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz (URO) are impressive by themselves, with hundreds of Oaxacans spilling their hatred and unique visual representations of URO. Even with it’s limitations, this book is a must-have for those interested in the Oaxacan struggle, or political street art more generally.
(one of my favorite images from Oaxaca: “Protect Us Most Holly Virgin of the Barricades”)